Another honor came Thursday when the 6-foot-9 University of New Mexico power forward was named one of 15 finalists for the U.S. Basketball Writers Association Oscar Robertson Trophy for college basketball’s National Player of the Year, the only Mountain West player to make the final cut.
Meanwhile, signs seem to point toward Bairstow closing in on winning the Mountain West Player of the Year when the awards are announced March 10.
But the deal isn’t closed just yet and two factors not directly related with his play could work against Bairstow. He could split votes from his own teammate Kendall Williams. Last year’s MWC Player of the Year is having a better season in 2014 than in 2013. Some voters tend to give it to the best player on the league champion and that likely won’t be determined until No. 25 UNM plays at No. 13 San Diego State.
Yes, Bairstow leads the league in scoring (20.3 points per MWC game) and shooting (56.4 percent, when no other active player is shooting better than 50 percent in league games), while pulling down 7.5 rebounds and blocking 1.5 shots per game.
But Williams and Thames aren’t far off his pace in terms of all-around game and contribution to their team’s success.
Williams is averaging 15.9 points per game and leads the league in assists (4.7) and steals (1.7), while ranking No. 2 in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.3).
When Williams won the award a season ago, former Lobo coach Steve Alford said it was an easy pick as “the conference player of the year comes from the league champion. … It’s just the way it is. You reward teams that do the best body of work.”
So that leaves Thames, the senior leader for SDSU, which could win the MWC regular-season crown.
Thames is averaging 17.1 points, 3.1 assists and 1.5 steals per game. He doesn’t lead the league in any major statistical categories, but clearly has been the primary reason the defense-first Aztecs enjoyed a 20-game win streak and were recently ranked as high as No. 5 in the country.
Still, the front-runner, especially after Thames’ recent struggles, is Bairstow.
There’s a reason he’s getting national attention, and he’s been the most consistent player since MWC games began Jan. 1. He hasn’t scored fewer than 14 points, and no opposing team has figured out how to guard him without fouling, putting him at the free throw line a league-high 8.3 times per game (Williams is No. 2 at 7.5).
First-year Lobos head coach Craig Neal has already said he will nominate both Bairstow and Williams,. That’s something UNM opted against a season ago with Williams and center Alex Kirk because it didn’t want the two to possibly split votes, leading to a player on another team winning the award.
“I think both of them are players of the year, but that’s not for me to decide. I’ll put both of them up. I have to,” Neal said. “It puts me in a tough spot, because everybody knows who we put up. The league should do that. That shouldn’t be on the coach. I mean can you imagine if you’re Kendall Williams’ father and you find out I don’t put his son up and he’s player of the year the year before?
“Yeah you want to do what’s best for somebody to win it from your school, but that’s not fair. I’ll put both of them up and if they end up splitting votes and they don’t get it, then that’s probably my fault, but they both deserve it.”
WHAT ABOUT COACH? SDSU coach Steve Fisher on Thursday was named one of 10 finalists for the USBWA’s Henry Iba Award for the nation’s best coach. For a team picked to finish fourth in a down season of the MWC to take his team to a Top 5 national ranking, it’s easy to see why.
But for MWC Coach of the Year, which is supposed to be based solely on league play, Neal could steal the honor if the Lobos go on the road next week and win an outright league title on SDSU’s home court.
TICKET UPDATE: As of Thursday evening, there were 41 tickets remaining for UNM’s home finale Wednesday against Air Force – 10 in the lower bowl and 31 club-level seats.